Tuesday 21 November 2017

Treasures: Blades of glory

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column

A Japanese court tachi in orange lacquer saya
A Japanese court tachi in orange lacquer saya
Rolex day date watch

Nothing stirs the market for Japanese swords like a good samurai movie. According to the Antiques Trade Gazette, antiques dealers in New York reported a surge of new collectors following the release of The Last Samurai (2003), starring Tom Cruise. All over America, collectors took their swords down from the walls and started calculating what they might fetch at auction.

At the time, there were probably more Japanese swords in America than Japan. Most of them arrived as booty after the Second World War.

When Japan surrendered in 1945, all Japanese officers were required to hand over their weapons, including their swords. These were an essential part of the Japanese military kit. Some were historic blades, centuries old, remounted to use in the war. Most, though, were standard WW2 military issue (known as shin-guntô or new army swords). Anyone who gets interested in Japanese sword collecting will find themselves learning a lot of terminology!

In a soldier's kit, the sword was the finest item, deeply linked to a sense of tradition and pride. They were made in a style that echoed the traditional Japanese sword and many an American GI went home with a war trophy mistakenly believed to be a 'samurai sword'.

Although the blades of the World War II era were not generally made by master sword makers, many of those made before the beginning of the war are of very high quality. A great number of genuinely old swords were also brought back to the US as souvenirs.

If you wanted to start a collection of Japanese swords, you couldn't have been better placed than Colonel Sean O'Driscoll. The Irish-American officer was aide to General Douglas MacArthur when he accepted the Japanese surrender in 1945. O'Driscoll wasn't your average American soldier. He collected both old swords and new ones, but was well aware of the difference between them. Probably, the swords that he collected in Japan were saved from destruction.

General MacArthur remained in Japan for six years after the surrender. Under his command, Japanese people were not allowed to own or to make swords. Along with the not-so-valuable World War II swords, many ancient swords were confiscated and destroyed. For the Japanese, this must have been a humiliating experience that went far beyond the practical issues of demilitarisation. Sword making, in Japan, has fathomless layers of historical and cultural significance. To destroy these blades was akin to asking the Irish to melt down their Celtic gold.

Horrified by the destruction of their heritage, a pair of Japanese academics intervened. Dr Junji Homma and Dr Kanzan Sato, both sword experts, persuaded MacArthur of the difference between simple military weapons and blades that had artistic merit and spiritual significance. MacArthur understood, the legislation was changed, and many swords were saved from destruction.

Colonel Sean O'Driscoll, went on to have an interesting life. On his retirement in 1961, he bought and restored Castle Matrix, near Rathkeale in Limerick. In 1976, O'Driscoll addressed the Fellowship of Isis, giving an account of the rebuilding of the castle, where he claimed Sir Walter Raleigh, Edmund Spencer and the Wizard Earl of Desmond had practiced magic.

The castle was originally built for the Seventh Earl of Desmond in 1420 (and reputedly haunted by the Ninth Earl who was murdered by his servants), but O'Driscoll lived there with his family and a considerable collection of antiques until his death in 1991.

Recently, on May 6, some of his collection of Japanese swords went up for sale at Whyte's Eclectic Collector auction on May 6. The earliest, a 17th century Shinto sword in a holding scabbard, sold for €3,600. The sword was of the type known as a tachi, worn by the samurai class of feudal Japan. Worn with the cutting edge down, it was possibly designed to be wielded on horseback.

The blade was decorated with an engraving (or horimono) of a dragon pursuing the pearl of wisdom and is the work of a swordsmith known for the quality of his engraving.

Typically for its time, the sword was hand-forged and signed by the swordsmith on the tang, the part of the blade that is hidden inside the hilt. The wooden holding scabbard was used to hold the sword during times of peace and it would probably have been stored in a Shinto shrine, built for the safekeeping of sacred objects. That was the samurai equivalent of storing your guns with the guards.

A second, slightly later, Japanese Shinto tachi sold for €5,000. This may have been an executioner's blade. One side of the tang was inscribed with the name of the maker: "Kato Tsunatoshi on orders of Fujiwara Teifuku - on a day of the second month Tenpo eight (1837)." The other side described how: "On the 27th day of the tenth month of the same year at Senju Yamakado Yazaemon [cut through] a head and into the earthenmound below." The blade itself was decorated with a dragon on one side and a figure holding a tsurugi (a type of sword) in a mountain landscape to the other.

A third sword at Whyte's, a Japanese court tachi that sold for €3,800, was the most typical of the swords in the sale, and probably the closest match to the ones that you see in samurai movies. It came in an orange lacquer saya (scabbard) decorated with gold hollyhock symbols, signifying it was worn in the imperial court.

See whytes.ie.

In the salerooms


If you're in the market for understated 20th century furniture, DeVere's Design & Irish Art Auction takes place on Sunday at 2.30pm at the Royal College of Physicians, No 6 Kildare Street.

The sale includes the collection of the late Peter Johnson, one of Ireland's leading interior designers and a sad loss to the trade. Expect also pieces from known designers - Arne Jacobsen, Hans Wegner, Bruno Mathsson, Mies Van Der Rohe and Philippe Starck - as well as something slightly stranger. An Irish hand-carved Flower Chair (est €600 to €1,000) by Paul Berg probably dates from the 1980s or 1990s.

The chair is on the weird side of wonderful and very much of its time, but is also a testimony to just how inventive Irish design of that era could be. The auction also includes fine art from the likes of William Scott, Tony O'Malley, Patrick Scott and Pablo Picasso.

See deveres.ie.

In the salerooms


All gemstones have superstitions attached, but rubies are more fun than most. If you have a ruby, you will never have cold feet because the fire in the stone will warm you.

If you're feeling off-colour, the ruby will fade too. There's a fine bunch of rubies at O'Reilly's auction of Fine Jewellery, Watches & Silver, which takes place next Wednesday at 1pm. They include a ruby and diamond ring (est €1,000 to €1,200); a Victorian ruby and diamond garland pendant brooch, mounted in platinum and gold (est €8,000 to €9,000); and a pair of ruby and diamond oval cluster earrings (est €4,000 to €4,500). But the piece billed to lead the sale is an Imperial Russian Fabergé gold and enamel miniature portrait frame (est €15,000 to €16,000) dating from around 1900.

See oreillysfineart.com.


The next Fine Jewellery & Silver auction at John Weldon Auctioneers takes place on Tuesday at 2pm. Potential highlights include a very showy diamond set 18ct gold gentleman's Rolex day date wrist watch (below) on a president bracelet with all its credentials in order (est €6,500-€8,500).

Rolex day date watch

There is also a fine selection of diamond rings with estimates ranging from €3,000 to €8,000, as well as a number of humbler items. "Not everything we sell at auction has a price range in the thousands of Euro," says Weldon. "We also get really nice quality pieces at low values." These include a pretty diamond and opal cluster ring, dated Sept 11, 1899 (est €150 to €250). See jwa.ie.


Vintage Ireland will host a fair of antique and vintage items at Trim Castle Hotel, Co Meath, on Sunday, May 21, from 12pm-6pm (admission €3.50). They're expecting a fine selection of specialist traders in jewellery and silver, antique and vintage tableware, rare coins and banknotes, and other memorabilia.

The fair will also host Fussy Galore's Vintage Rail Sale, with traders offering a range of styles for men and women, along with vintage accessories. See vintageireland.eu.

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